Moisant, Matilde (c. 1877–1964)
Moisant, Matilde (c. 1877–1964)
Aviation pioneer who was the second American woman to receive a pilot's license and a partner of her brothers Alfred and John in the Moisants' airfield, flight school, plane factory and air circus. Name variations: Tudy, Tillie. Pronunciations: MOY-sant or MWAH-zawnt. Born Matilde Josephine Moisant on a farm near Manteno, Illinois, around 1877 or 1878; died in La Crescenta, California, in 1964; daughter of Medore Moisant and Josephine (Fortier) Moisant; attended public high school in Alameda, California; never married; no children.
Rodman Wanamaker Trophy (altitude record for women, September 24, 1911).
Spent childhood with French-Canadian immigrant parents on several farms in southern Illinois; on the death of her father, moved to Alameda, California, with her mother and six siblings (1887); departed Alameda for a sugar plantation owned by her oldest brother Alfred in Sonsonate, El Salvador (1909); left El Salvador for New York City (1910); earned pilot's license after 32 minutes of instruction (1911); led an air circus in Mexico in the midst of a revolution (1911); was a member of the Early Birds association; after a crash—the fifth of her career—at Wichita Falls, Texas (April 14, 1912), retired from flying and spent the remainder of her life in Los Angeles and La Crescenta.
Matilde Moisant was destined to be an active partner in the pioneering aviation business of her brothers, John and Alfred, and eventually to become a pilot of a Blériot XI, a frail aircraft built mostly of wood, cloth, and piano wire. But the beautiful and petite woman gained her goals by following the code of delicate femininity called for by the tenets of her time. She also chose to remain unmarried in an era when a single woman was regarded as pitiful. The sixth of seven children of French-Canadian immigrants Medore and Josephine Moisant , Matilde spent her childhood on various farms owned by her father in southern Illinois.
At his death, when Matilde was nine, her oldest brother Alfred moved the entire family to Alameda, California, where she attended elementary and high school. From Alameda, Alfred moved the family again, this time to a sugar plantation he had acquired in El Salvador. When her mother died there in 1901, Matilde, at 14, with the aid of her younger sister, Louise Moisant , managed the Santa Emelia hacienda, known throughout the country for its hospitality during years of political unrest that at one time led to soldiers of the Salvadorian Army occupying the property.
Much of the turmoil involving the Moisants in Salvadorian politics was caused by Matilde's youngest brother John who had become a gunslinging aide of Juan Zelaya, the president of Nicaragua. Zelaya was determined to overthrow the government of El Salvador, and to this end John led two armed invasions of the country. Following his second failed attack in 1910, John became a fugitive hunted by the U.S. Navy. He escaped to New York City where Alfred, Matilde and Louise later joined him and where he convinced Alfred and Matilde that aviation held the key to their futures.
Leaving his brother and sisters to settle in New York, John went to France to become an aviator. Never having flown before, he built an aluminum-bodied plane and crashed on his first flight. While building a second plane, he took three lessons at the aviation school of Louis Blériot, one of France's leading airplane designers. And on only his sixth flight, he set three world records, becoming the first man to cross the English Channel with a passenger (Blériot had done it solo in 1910) and to fly from Paris to London with a passenger and in the same plane.
While John was in France, Alfred, aided by Matilde, established an airfield, an aircraft factory and a flying school and, after John returned, an air circus, the Moisant International Aviators, Inc. The group included three Frenchmen, Roland Garros, René Barrier and René Simon; a Swiss, Edmond Audemars, and three Americans, Charles Hamilton, John J. Frisbie, and Joseph Seymour. When they took to the road, Matilde accompanied them and assisted Alfred in making arrangements for rooms and meals. John's brief career of five months ended in New Orleans on December 31, 1910, when he crashed and died in an attempt to win the Michelin Cup for speed and endurance.
After seven months of mourning her brother's death, Matilde was ready to replace John as leader of the Moisant air circus. At age 33, she moved into the Atlantic City Hotel in Garden City, New York, to be near the Moisant field. There she took her first flying lessons from André Houpert, a Frenchman whom John had hired as a flying instructor. Matilde proved to be an apt pupil, setting an all-time record for the shortest composite training time to gain a pilot's license—32 minutes. (Years later, at her request, the Aero Club of America verified this as the shortest training time in licensing history.)
Matilde chose to become the second, rather than the first woman to be licensed so that her friend and fellow student Harriet Quimby could be first. Quimby, a New York journalist and sole support of her aging parents, intended to fly for a living and needed the publicity.
Less than six weeks after Matilde received her license, she and Quimby were among the four women listed in the program as contestants in an air meet at Nassau field in Long Island. The other two were Blanche Stuart Scott , the first U.S. woman to fly, and Hélène Dutrieu , a famous French pilot and the first woman aviator to fly with a passenger. All had planned to compete for the Rodman Wanamaker trophy on the third day of the meet, but finally only Moisant did. Quimby refused to fly on a Sunday; Dutrieu had arrived from France only the day before, and her plane had not yet been assembled; and Scott was ruled ineligible because she did not yet have a flying license that she had intended to try for during the meet. So on Sunday, September 24, 1911, in her Blériot XI, Matilde ascended to 1,200 feet, breaking Dutrieu's previous altitude record.
On October 9, 1911, also a Sunday, Matilde chose to ignore a county sheriff's order to refrain from flying on the Sabbath and took off from Nassau field for Alfred's field in Mineola, touching off a wild chase with Matilde in the air and three deputies in a police car on the ground, all followed by a procession of cars filled with friends and spectators. On landing at the Moisant field, she was rescued from the deputies by a friend with a car, setting off yet another Keystone Cop pursuit. A number of New York newspapers reported the chase the next day, one with a cartoon that Matilde herself described as "a picture of the cutest little witch you ever saw sitting on a broom, waving to the officers."
In November of 1911, Alfred arranged a show in Mexico City, taking Matilde, Harriet Quimby, and two other fliers with him. After attending a number of parties given in her honor by President-elect Francisco Madero, Matilde delivered a thank-you message by air, flying over Chapultepec Palace with a bouquet of flowers anchored to a rock. Madero responded immediately: "I got your flowers. Now if that had been a bomb I wouldn't be here today because it dropped right on the patio."
After the Mexico City show, which made Matilde the first woman ever to fly in that country, the other fliers abruptly broke with the Moisant International Aviators—Quimby to plan for her ultimately successful flight across the English Channel, and the two men because of disagreements with Alfred over financial and travel arrangements. Despite these unexpected defections, and despite the fact that various revolutionary forces throughout the country were engaged in armed conflict both among themselves and with the federal government forces, Matilde took the show to the cities Alfred had booked outside the capital. Accompanied only by Houpert and her mechanics, for the next two months she barnstormed in city after city, demonstrating both the Moisant aircraft and her own flying skills. Few of the amazed spectators had ever seen an airplane before and few if any were even cognizant of the fact that Matilde was risking her life almost every time she took off into the dangerously thin air and treacherous wind currents of the high-altitude countryside. As Houpert commented later: "Miss Moisant again showed her wonderful nerve, for in all my experience I have never found such air currents.…Few men would have attempted to fly but Miss Moisant, with true nerve, took her machine up where it was risking one's life. In nerve she is equally as strong as was poor old Johnny."
It wasn't until Torreon, 340 miles north of Guadalajara, that the revolution finally caught up with her. There, rebel troops shunted the Moisant Pullman and its aircraft-carrying freight car onto a side-track, while Matilde, the only Spanish-speaker among them, negotiated daily for their food, supplies and safety. By the time government troops broke the rebel siege, it was clear that the military turmoil had made further flying in Mexico impossible. As their train made its slow retreat across Chihuahua State to Laredo, Texas, troops from one side or the other constantly pounded on the windows of their car and threatened to enter but, Houpert said, Matilde faced them down at every stop. When their train finally arrived in New Orleans,
Houpert again credited Matilde's courage and determination for the Moisant troupe's survival. "Few men could have managed our affairs as well," he said, "and had it not been for the cool-headedness of our little woman manager, we would have gotten into serious complications."
If Matilde had been entertaining any thoughts of resting up after her Mexican ordeal, that was not to be. For while she was battling air currents and armies in Mexico, brother Alfred was booking her and Houpert for two months of exhibition flights in Louisiana and Texas. The tour began in New Orleans, where one newspaper reported that "several thousand people at the City Park race track were thrilled by her skill and daring maneuvers." Moving on to Shreveport, Louisiana, where the customary air-show site of a race track was replaced by a golf course, Matilde narrowly escaped death when she bounced onto wet grass and landed upside down in a sand trap. This, her fourth accident, brought demands from her sister Louise that she give up flying.
Matilde promised she would fly just one more time, at a show scheduled for Wichita Falls, Texas. There, on April 14, before a crowd that had waited all day to watch what had been announced as her last flight, she barely cleared the park fence on take-off only to be forced down outside the park ten minutes later by a sputtering motor. Told the plane needed only minor repairs and overruling Houpert's warning that it was too windy, she decided to go up again, saying: "This is my last flight and I want it to be my best." Landing for a second time in a wind storm, she was horrified to see that a crowd of spectators, unfamiliar with aircraft and not knowing that a landing plane needed taxi space before coming to a full stop, had swarmed onto the landing area. To avoid hitting the crowd, Matilde nosed the plane down until the wheels touched, then brought it back up over the crowd before it slammed nose first into the ground beyond them. Propeller fragments cut into the gas tanks, fuel spewed over red-hot exhaust pipes and the entire aircraft was engulfed in flames. Houpert dragged her from the plane, her coat singed and burning. Before leaving the field and ever the lady, Matilde apologized to the spectators for appearing in a soiled and torn flying suit. She never flew again. Nor did she ever learn how to drive an automobile.
Matilde Moisant died in 1964 at the age of 86 in La Crescenta, California, and was buried next to the grave of her bother, John, at the Portal of the Folded Wings in North Hollywood, California. At a memorial service attended by many members of the Early Birds, fellow pioneer pilots, the speaker said: "Rarely have we had one of our members more deserving of public praise and acclaim, yet so retiring and self-effacing."
Alameda City Directory, 1888.
Alameda Daily Argus, 1883–1891.
National Archives, Washington, DC: Record Group 84. Records of Foreign Service Posts. El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Rich, Doris L. The Magnificent Moisants. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.
The Reminiscences of Matilde Moisant, Oral History Research Office, Columbia University, New York, 1960.